Boston Researchers Train Bees to Detect Diabetes

CBS Boston   By Dr. Mallika Marshall, WBZ-TV    August 14, 2014 

BOSTON (CBS) – “Diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions, not only in the U.S. but worldwide,” says Dr. Allison Goldfine, a diabetes specialist at the Joslin Diabetes Center.

She is helping foreign graduate students Tobias Horstmann and Juliet Phillips with their research project.

They’re trying to use bees to sniff out diabetes.

Bees don’t have traditional noses, but through their antenna, they can smell 10 million times better than humans. The students have collected bees, placed them in cartridges and trained them to detect a chemical called acetone, found in higher concentrations in the breath of people with diabetes.

In collaboration with the Los Almos National Laboratory in New Mexico, they are using a device to house the bees and observe the bees’ reaction. If a patient breathes into the device and acetone is detected, the bees stick out their tongues in response.

Dr. Goldfine says the research has promising preliminary data.

The goal is to use this as a screening tool, especially in developing countries.

“The importance is the portability to be able to bring it easily to the people without having to do blood sticks or blood testing,” explains Dr. Goldfine.

Sustainability is an important factor.  By partnering with bee keepers, they could sell the bees’ wax and honey and use the bees to pollinate crops to help support the mission.

The students are hoping to use this research on bees to look for other diseases that can be detected on a person’s breath like tuberculosis and cancer.

“The long-term vision,” says Horstmann, “would be to have a device where not only bees are in there that can detect diabetes but also tuberculosis and cancer. So, with one blow of the patient, we could detect different diseases.”

“We hope that with our screening process,” says Phillips, “we’ll be able to get to these people earlier and relieve the burden, not only on them but the public health system.”

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(Note from the Bee Girl: Boston grad students are up for a million dollar grant from the Clinton Foundation for disease detecting honey bees!! Bill Clinton's administration was the original supporter of the "the bomb sniffing bees" project through the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), which I eventually had the pleasure of working on with Prof. Bromenshenk at the University of Montana.)